Elite athletes excel not only in their sport of choice but also in cognitive abilities that are important on and off the court - how fast their brains take in and respond to new information.
This is what Beckman Institute director Arthur Kramer and his colleagues have discovered in a new study.
The study, of 87 top-ranked Brazilian volleyball players (some of them medalists in the Beijing and London Olympics) and 67 of their nonathletic contemporaries, also found that being an athlete minimizes the performance differences that normally occur between women and men.
Female athletes, the researchers found, were more like their male peers in the speed of their mental calculations and reaction times, while nonathletic females performed the same tasks more slowly than their male counterparts.
"We found that athletes were generally able to inhibit behavior, to stop quickly when they had to, which is very important in sport and in daily life," said University of Illinois psychology professor and Beckman Institute director Arthur Kramer, who led the study with graduate student Heloisa Alves.
"They were also able to activate, to pick up information from a glance and to switch between tasks more quickly than nonathletes. I would say these were modest differences, but they were interesting differences nonetheless," he added.
Overall, the athletes were faster at memory tests and tasks that required them to switch between tasks. They were quicker to notice things in their peripheral vision and to detect subtle changes in a scene. And in general, they were better able to accomplish tasks while ignoring confusing or irrelevant information.
All in all, the new findings add to the evidence that those who spend years training on specific physical tasks tend to also have enhanced cognitive abilities, Kramer said.
"Our understanding is imperfect because we don't know whether these abilities in the athletes were 'born' or 'made.' Perhaps people gravitate to these sports because they're good at both. Or perhaps it's the training that enhances their cognitive abilities as well as their physical ones. My intuition is that it's a little bit of both." he said.
The study appeared in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.